Today's guest post is from Kat Ellis
What does your main character look like? Or if you’re a reader but not a writer, what does your favourite main character look like?
I bet you can describe them in some detail: eye colour, the kind of hair they have, what clothes they wear, their body type. And maybe the way you picture them and the way someone else pictures them will be exactly the same, if they’ve been described in that kind of detail. But even if their appearance has been left for a reader to imagine, I’m betting you have a clear idea of what they look like.
When book-to-film cast lists are announced, there are always some who say, “But that’s not what he/she looks like!” Think Rue in THE HUNGER GAMES movie. Edward and Bella in TWILIGHT. The movie actors may look different to how we imagined them–either from their description in the novels, or just our own imaginings—and maybe that leads to a moment of doubt about a character we loved. If I got that wrong, did I misunderstand the character?
Without the movie, your image of a character may never be called into question, so you may never know if your picture of them matches someone else’s. So, does it matter what characters in novels look like?
Sometimes it’s important to the story. WONDER by R. J. Palacio is about Auggie – an ordinary 10-year-old boy who likes to do very ordinary 10-year-old boy things, except he’s terrified to start going to mainstream school because of a facial abnormality he was born with. Eleanor in ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell is picked on because of the way she looks. (Rainbow Rowell wrote a wonderful post about whether or not Eleanor is really fat – you can read that here.
So, arguably, you could say that their stories would not have been interesting—or at least not in the same way—if their appearance hadn’t made them stand out. And certain aspects of appearance—like ethnicity, gender, height, weight, beauty (however this is defined)—will affect how a character interacts with others, and their experience of the world. But describing a character’s appearance because it impacts on the story is different from describing them simply to create a shared image.
It sometimes takes me by surprise when I read a description of a character who I’ve already formulated a picture of in my head. If the description differs from the mental image I have of them, that tells me I’m filling in blanks the author didn’t expect me to fill in. I then start to wonder: if I describe my own characters’ appearance in detail, am I setting up the reader to feel disconnected? Because in that jarring moment when I read the description that doesn’t gel with my own, I start to re-evaluate my opinion of the character, and that takes me out of the story.
And another part of me quite enjoys being free to imagine characters –my own and other people’s—the way I want to see them. It gives me a role in the story and a creative freedom that I wouldn’t otherwise have with someone else’s book.
So maybe what you leave out is just as important—maybe more important—than the description you put in.
What do you think: is a character’s appearance important? Do you prefer to have a detailed description, or to fill in the blanks yourself?
Kat Ellis is a young adult writer from North Wales. Her debut novel, BLACKFIN SKY, is forthcoming from Firefly Press (May 2014, UK), and Running Press Kids (Fall 2014, USA). You'll usually find Kat up to no good on Twitter, playing badminton like a ninja, or watching scary films with her husband and feral cat. She speaks Welsh fluently and French badly.
Want to know more about Kat? She lurks around on her blog, website and Twitter.